Giving up smoking – what help is available?

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If you have tried giving up smoking before without success, don’t despair. There are now more options than ever to help

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Quick facts

  • Smokers are 14 times more likely to develop severe disease
  • On average, it takes around 30 quit attempts before smokers succeed in giving up
  • Psychological, over-the-counter and medical help is available

It’s never a good time to be a smoker and right now is no different.

As well as the clear links to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, lung disease and many other cancers, studies have shown that smokers with Covid-19 are far more likely to go on to develop serious and sometimes fatal complications.

Cigarette toxins cause lung damage, reducing lung capacity and the ability to use oxygen. That means that once someone who smokes gets Covid-19, they can potentially become very ill quickly – sometimes worse than non-smokers – and may develop severe pneumonia. Part of this is because tiny hairs (cilia) that help clear infection from the lungs don’t work so well in smokers. In China, smokers were found to be 14 times more likely to develop severe disease.

The World Health Organisation have also said that the physical act of smoking and possibly sharing smoking paraphernalia means smokers also have a greater chance of getting infected.

Don’t give up on giving up

It is estimated that half a million British people have tried to quit since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
If the current situation has made you consider giving up smoking, you may have tried already without success. But that’s no reason to despair – research has found it takes an average of 30 attempts to give up before people finally succeed in kicking the habit.

When you stop smoking you will notice the following effects. After:

  • 20 minutes - blood pressure and heart rate drop
  • 12 hours - carbon monoxide (toxin) drops in your blood to normal
  • 2 weeks - circulation and lung function improve
  • 4 weeks - coughing and shortness of breath improve
  • 1 year - your risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker
  • 5 years - your stroke rate is the same as a non-smoker
  • 10 years - your risk of all cancers is much lower
  • 15 years - your risk of coronary heart disease is the same as someone who never smoked

First, some steps to getting yourself ready:

1. Set the scene

Once you have made the decision to quit, tell everyone – make a quit plan and then set a quit date.

Now, remove smoking items from your home, your car and – if you’re travelling to work – your workplace.

At least for a while, minimise smoking ‘cues’ such as alcohol – these are things you associate habitually with smoking.

Ask others to respect your decision by not smoking around you.

2. Know the side effects to expect

Know what side effects can occur as your body withdraws from its addiction to nicotine. Then be prepared to deal with them. Most commonly, this will include headaches so make sure you sleep, hydrate, exercise and eat well.

You may also experience more coughing. This is because those cilia in your lungs come to life again making you temporarily cough more. Drink plenty of water. You might also find having hot drinks, such as tea with honey, can help.

3. Be ready

‘Acknowledge that quitting smoking is a process. Motivation changes over time and setbacks are not uncommon,’ says Jesper Enander, chief psychologist, Livi.

‘For success, make a list of pros and cons and work out why you want to quit. Give yourself slack if things go wrong and get back to the plan as soon as you can,’ he advises.

‘Identify situations where you might be tempted, such as parties or stress. Then, plan in advance how you will deal with the urge to smoke. For example, buy chewing gum so when cravings hit, you can chew instead of smoking’.

4. Know your options

Thankfully, there are now more options than ever to help you give up smoking. If something doesn’t work for you, try something else. Here’s a summary:

5. Talking and communication

You can find local stop smoking support services and groups through the NHS Smokefree site.

Allen Carr’s famous book, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking claims to change the thought processes around the need to smoke. Although there have not been enough formal studies done on this method, there are abundant anecdotal success stories from patients.

6. Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)

Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) bought over-the-counter from the chemist, or prescribed by your regular NHS GP or smoking-cessation service can take the form of gum, tablets, oral strips, lozenges, spray or inhalators. These can be good for immediate cravings as they are short-acting.

Long-acting NRT options such as patches can be helpful for cravings by delivering nicotine to your system over the course of a day. Various strengths are available so you can be gradually weaned down. Patches are removed at night so you can sleep (as nicotine is a stimulant).

Treatment with NRT lasts 8 to 12 weeks after which you gradually wean yourself off.

Side effects include insomnia, upset tummy, dizziness, headaches, sore skin from patches, sprays irritating nose and throat. Talk to your doctor if these don’t resolve.

If you have kidney, liver, cardiovascular problems or are pregnant/breastfeeding discuss NRT with your GP first.

7. E-cigarettes

Many have successfully quit real cigarettes using e-cigarettes. However, we don’t have long-term data on their safety.

In one study, rates for stopping smoking with e-cigarettes were 83% higher than using traditional NRT.

However, they can cause mouth or throat irritation and some investigators suggest long term e-cigarettes may cause other damage and also be addictive.

Be mindful of your use of e-cigarettes and make sure you discuss this with your doctor first.

Getting medical help

Do consider speaking to a pharmacist first for advice on over-the-counter medications.

If you’ve tried other methods to give up smoking without success, it may be useful to speak to your GP about the other treatments that are available and whether these are suitable for you.

Reviewed By: Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP, Livi

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